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Dacula couple feels cheated after cell tower moved to county land

Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Steve Pennington and his wife, Brenda, were surprised to find the county was constructing a cell tower on the other side of their property line after they had a contract for three years to get it on their land. The the county tabled it for three years before denying it just a few months ago.

Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Steve Pennington and his wife, Brenda, were surprised to find the county was constructing a cell tower on the other side of their property line after they had a contract for three years to get it on their land. The the county tabled it for three years before denying it just a few months ago.

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Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Construction has begun on a cell tower just outside the property line of Steve and Brenda Pennington.

DACULA -- Gwinnett County's revenues will be boosted by the first cellphone tower located in a local park, but it is at the expense of a Dacula couple.

Steve and Brenda Pennington waited three years for commissioners to act on a proposal to put the tower on their 15-acre homestead on Hurricane Shoals Road. In June, a contract with T-Mobile that would have given the couple $1,000 a month expired.

Then, a month later, the couple was shocked to see construction begin on a tower just 100 feet from where they had proposed, just on the other side of their fence in Rabbit Hill Park.

"It's just deception," said 71-year-old Brenda Pennington. "We thought that (money) would be so great for our grandkids."

The Penningtons entered into a contract for the cell tower in June 2008, and officials worked to take the proposal through a public zoning process. After the county's planning officials recommended approval and a public hearing was held, the proposal was tabled. In fact, it was tabled 22 times before finally being denied last April.

By then, county officials had signed a lease, approving the tower on Rabbit Hill parkland in December.

"I can't believe they would get away with something like that," Pennington said of being strung along so long while the county made its own deal. "I would love for them to sit face to face and explain that. It's obvious they wanted the money instead of me."

Fresh from memories of last year's resignation of Commissioner Kevin Kenerly after he was indicted on a bribery charge involving a favorable land deal on that very acreage at Rabbit Hill, the Penningtons said the deal is another example of government taking advantage of taxpayers.

But others say the idea of putting cell towers on government property is a match made in heaven.

Ann Brooks, a spokeswoman for T-Mobile, said industry leaders have been working with governments across the Southeast. After all, governments and school systems are owners of many large tracts in varied areas.

"More and more local governments are becoming interested in the wireless market because it brings them revenue," Brooks said, mentioning that Cobb County schools have joined the trend. "It's been a long time coming and we are glad to finally be able to have access to Gwinnett County property."

She said the Penningtons were told of T-Mobile's interest in the parkland from the beginning, although the couple said they only got a suspicion about that two years into the process through a confidential conversation with another T-Mobile employee.

Commissioner Mike Beaudreau, who represents the area, said the cellphone tower vote was delayed at T-Mobile's request.

The idea of placing towers on county land came up during a process to change the local ordinance, he added, referring questions on the specific property to the cell provider.

"I'm very pleased with the overall situation," he said. "It just sounds like sour grapes, but I've got to look at the effect for everyone, not just one person. I think it's the right thing to do."

Tower proposals, he said, are often unpopular with the community, but federal law gives the county little leeway. He gave an example of a tower commissioners denied years ago on Cole Drive only to have a judge force the county to allow the structure near Parkview High School. Working with providers, he said, will give the county more say in the locations.

"The bottom line is I have to look at the effect for everyone," he said. "In a shrinking tax digest, that's a good thing. We're trying to get our tax base to be as broad and diverse as possible. ... I'm excited it's going to supplement our recreation budget and keep our taxes low."

T-Mobile is paying Gwinnett more than twice what they would have paid the Penningtons -- $2,150 a month with a 3 percent increase every year, plus $750 a month for every service that co-locates onto the tower. But Brooks said the company was willing to pay to have access to other government properties.

"Of course, you are going to want the best deal, but ... we don't need coverage just in this area of Rabbit Hill Park," she said. "I feel like it's a bigger picture. It's paramount we are able to provide service."

While individual landowners must go through a public hearing process and notify neighbors, the county commission voted on the lease agreement at Rabbit Hill at a public meeting but without a hearing or notice.

The Penningtons said they probably would not have balked at a tower going up next door if it were not for the "deception" they felt in this case.

"I've never been one to think you ought to control someone else's property," said Steve Pennington, who only asked for a privacy fence when a major business park was proposed behind his agriculturally zoned land more than a decade ago. It turned out that just a month later the county bought that land for Rabbit Hill Park, and he never got the fence he requested.

The tower's location, he pointed out, is possibly even worse for area residents since it is now even closer to the road and right across the street from Cornerstone Fellowship, an Assembly of God church his son pastors.

"I don't know if I can let this lay," he said, adding that he is in talks with an attorney. "As citizens, you get to the point where you have to stand up to them, whether you can afford to or not."

Chairwoman Charlotte Nash, who was not in office when the county voted to approve the cell tower, declined to comment.

According to Recreation Authority minutes, the county has been approached about towers at Shorty Howell Park in Duluth and Lenora Park south of Snellville. Neither have been approved, but Beaudreau said towers are in the works for at least a half dozen government sites.

Several years ago, the county placed a tower on land adjacent to Tribble Mill Park outside of Lawrenceville for police radio equipment. Cellphone providers have co-located equipment on the tower for a fee.

Comments

Daculan 2 years, 8 months ago

While I certainly sympathize with their creativity and desire to have their land produce money, as a taxpayer I'm glad the County used existing resources rather than pay tax dollars for the same need. This is exactly the kind of budget trimming and thought our officials need to put into operations in order around here.

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BufordGuy 2 years, 8 months ago

Have you lost your mind? Have the government torpedo deals with private citizens to produce income, let me restate that, revenue, for the government? It's theft, plain and simple. I am amazed at the number of so-called conservatives that think this kind of stuff is okay---well at least until it's their pocket or backyard the government is getting into.

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davewfence 2 years, 8 months ago

I know the Pennington's are very fine people, however, they should have known that you simply cannot trust the government. It's clear, the Pennington's would have saved the cell company a lot of money over time if the cell company had signed with them (Pennington's), but, when the government is involved, honor and integrity mean absolutely nothing. If, repeat IF, the Pennington's had a contract, they should file suit against the cell company and the county. Good Luck.

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BufordGuy 2 years, 8 months ago

Mike Beaudreau is nothing but a common thief. Only difference is he is able to use the power of law to steal legally. A government minded northeastern liberal. One thing to win something like this because of open competition, but to sneak around behind folks back and use your power to do this is repulsive. How many of us will suffer so the "government" can generate income. Obama would be very proud of you Mr. Commissioner. Here's praying your time in government is shortly coming to an end.

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Hmmm 2 years, 8 months ago

I'm not sure whether they were "deceived" or just naive about it. Any business is going to try to work out the best overall deal that it can. If T-Mobile has a chance to do multiple cell tower deals with the same entity, it would usually be in their best interest to do it that way - especially if it's with an entity like a local government that is accustomed to dealing with contracts, rather than multiple contracts with private individuals. The latter may have little business savvy and could end up being difficult to do business with over time. What happens when they sell their house or it's inherited by their kids, and it gets subdivided, etc.

I feel badly for the Penningtons; it sucks for them, that they seemed to have a promising source of additional income and then it took forever to find out it wasn't going to happen after all. How disappointing for them, based on their expectations. I also feel badly for them that they seem to have expected a major corporation to lay all its cards on the table, communicate with them like a small town small business, etc.

Deals like this take time; T-Mobile was dealing with the various uncertainties and wouldn't have had any reason to deliberately string them along. A business deal needs to be a win-win, and their inexperience & unrealistic expectations, indicate to me that T-Mobile was smart to find a better option.

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BufordGuy 2 years, 8 months ago

Of course they were deceived. If the County would have just passed the darn thing Tmobile would have already been done building the tower. This was government intervention against private citizens, plain and simple. Sure Tmobile lost interest when they saw the County would not approve the plan until they agreed to build it on County property. What available avenues do citizens have to show up and voice opposition to towers on county property? What's fair for the goose should be fair for the gander.

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Gwinnett_Mom 2 years, 8 months ago

I understand that the Pennington family feels a loss, but it seems that T-mobile lost interest in working with them when they realized they could have a foot in the door to work with Gwinnett County on a number of projects. This deal will save T-mobile time and money (lawyers fighting for each rezoning) for future towers, bring the county a new source of money and increase service reception that is badly needed in the area. I am sorry for their loss, but agree that this family was naive and a large number of people will benefit.

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mustardandbiscuit 2 years, 8 months ago

Worse things have happened, cry me a river!

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Rocket1300 2 years, 8 months ago

This doesn't pass the "above reproach" test. It certainly appears that the County worked against this couple by using the powers of government to stall and they stop the private deal while enriching themselves. I'm also disappointed at Mike Beaudreau's comment that the couple are complaining is just "sour grapes". That's just throwing salt in their wound. A thousand bucks a month is alot of money to these folks and the county took it away with their double dealing. I'm sure T- Mobile is to blame as well. If I were in the couples shoes, I'd be seeking some legal advise for possible litigation against the county, Mr. Mike Beaudreau and T-mobile.

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Gundoctor1 2 years, 8 months ago

I believe we need to get Barak involved in this. Sounds like a stimulus issue to me. Talk about a shovel-ready job. Here it is.

Ma am, this is not deceit. This is plain, old fashioned, dirty government politics at work. You and your husband are probably hard-working, honest citizens, and had no idea that as soon as the county figured out there was money to be had, you stood no chance. Just you wait, as soon as election time comes around, they will be at your door begging for your vote.

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mary 2 years, 8 months ago

Mr. Beaudreau is showing his true colors. What if these were his parents? To him bringing in the taxes to help the recreation budget has priority over any consideration for an individual wishing to better their financial welfare. To him "The needs of the many far outweigh the needs of the few". If he had not overspent we would not have a budget problem.

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R 2 years, 8 months ago

He would have acted EXACTLY the same.

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Max 2 years, 8 months ago

I think I would have begun to be suspicious when the request was tabled for the 11th time. I believe an attorney is a good idea after the 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th time that it gets tabled. By the time it is tabled for the 22nd time and your contract has expired, they have already worked out their deal. The county probably worked out a deal with T-mobile right out of the gate, then the tabled it over and over in accordance with the time line of the contract with T-mobile. I personally think we should keep cell towers away from pastures and large tracts of unsused land, they should be placed in the closest proximity to children playing as we can manage.

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OVERIT 2 years, 8 months ago

Well for starters why would anyone be surprised that our BOC would do something like this especially with Beaudreau in the lead on this one. Ya'll need to run him off he is not in my district we had his buddy Kenerly. Supposedly Ms. Nash was going to clean it up and change the taxpayers and voters negative opoinion about the BOC so far not good. I understand getting business for the county but this was underhanded and sneaky and they had to power to table it wait for the contract to expire AND who really believes that they will use the money from T-Mobile responsibly for the county and or the county parks... if you do I got lots of bridges to sell ya. most like it is heading straight to their pockets. Wonder how much the check written directly to Mike Beaudreau from T-Moble was for?

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R 2 years, 8 months ago

Personally I found 3 items in the report interesting to say the least. 1) That Tmobile ( ATT) paid double to the county... 2) That towers on county land are NOT subject to the same review standards as those
on private land.

Was there really a need for a "no comment" from the chair because this started PRIOR to her term? Are you kidding us? Based on that logic, you are responsible for basically nothing and paid 50K plus for the privilege?

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